"I remember the air was really cool, and I was staring at the stars thinking to myself I wasn't gonna die," Koulchar said. "I kept telling myself that my brother was not gonna bury me."
Army Combat Engineer Nick Koulchar was hit by an improvised explosive device when insurgents seized Sadir City in Iraq on Aug. 26, 2008.
On the night of the explosion, Koulchar was providing cover from the roof of his truck while comrades scouted for bombs. Suddenly, everything went dark as a cloud of dust erupted around him.
He crashed to the center of the truck, legs collapsing beneath him.
“I’m thinking, ‘Damn, my legs are broke. Why does dumb stuff always happen to me?’” Koulchar said.
He urged his commander to tend to the driver, seriously injured and trapped behind the truck door, which was welded shut from the explosion’s heat. But as medics struggled to secure tourniquets to his bleeding legs, he realized just how bad it was.
“I remember the air was really cool, and I was staring at the stars and thinking to myself that I wasn’t gonna die,” he said. “I kept telling myself that my brother was not gonna bury me.”
The blast cost him both legs.
He woke up two weeks later at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with both legs amputated above the knee. He began to recover.
“It’s like being born again, but you still have recollection of living a previous life,” he said. “You have to learn everything you previously learned in a different way. It was pretty frustrating.”
Fifty surgeries and three years of physical therapy later, he returned home to Detroit, Mich., to start his life over. Since then, the 31-year-old has competed in nine marathons on a handcycle, has a 110-lb. snatch, a 165-lb. clean and jerk, and can do seven unbroken handstand push-ups.
Now, he’s going to join in the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games Open.
“I want to show people that if you’re determined enough, you can break down barriers,” he said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to your attitude, whether or not (people) want to choose to let whatever gauntlet may have been thrown at them beat them.”
After Koulchar returned home in 2011, he took a position as a National Services Officer with Disabled American Veterans. He was happy to continue to serve his country, and was itching to move again.
“I wanted to lose weight, build strength, and eventually use prosthetics full-time and get out of the wheelchair,” he said.
In April 2013, he heard his friend and fellow veteran amputee, Derick Carver, had opened Bayonet CrossFit in Shelby Township, Mich. Carver had been looking to start a program for adaptive athletes, and Koulchar was the perfect trial run.
“Nick and I are basically adapting new methods and training styles that work for the individual and individual’s injury,” Carver said. “It takes extra work, but trail-blazing is fun.”
Since then, Koulchar has trained at Bayonet CrossFit five to six days per week, before and after work. At first, he trained one-on-one with Carver to learn to modify workouts. Now, he does whatever the rest of the class is doing with a few choice adjustments.
Toes-to-bars become “nubs-to-bars.” When the workout prescribes box jumps, he uses his arms to propel himself on top of the box and over the other side. While others skip rope, he slams it. Recently, he performed Grace with the class.
“I sit on the ground and clean the bar,” he said. “It’s more a clean and press for me.”
Lacking a powerful hip extension, many lifts become pressing movements for Koulchar. To keep his shoulders healthy, he does rotator cuff mobility exercises before he trains.
Since Koulchar started CrossFit, he has lost 80 lb., and has become proficient at movements that are a struggle for athletes with twice as many limbs. He can string together 20 pull-ups, and recently learned the handstand push-up.
“I don’t have the legs to keep me pinned against the wall, so it was about (making) adjustments,” he said. “We tried bands, we tried having someone spot me. At the end of the day we were messing around and decided to stack a couple AbMats vertically against the wall to allow my head and shoulders to stay off the wall enough to allow me to press.”
The biggest gains, however, have been how CrossFit has changed Koulchar’s everyday life, giving him the strength to transfer between the floor and his wheelchair more easily.
“(CrossFit) has opened up a lot more opportunities in my life,” he said. “It’s probably the best type of therapy.”
Koulchar isn’t worried about what workouts may come up in the Open, and he’s fine with posting a score of zero if certain movements present themselves.
“I just want to take whatever challenge they throw out there and put my best foot forward,” he said with a chuckle. “I want to do my best, and at the end of the day, show that something like losing your legs isn’t the end of the world.”